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January 14, 2005

Presidential lecturer helps shape justice system

by Samantha Beres

Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences (psychology) Gary Wells will present the spring 2005 Presidential University Lecture. In his talk, "Do the Eyes Have It? The Mistaken Eyewitness," he will explain how his experiments with memory are helping reshape the justice system.

The use of DNA to exonerate those wrongly convicted of crimes began in the 1990s. "It turns out that when you ask why they were convicted in the first place, it was mistaken identity," Wells said. "In police lineups, 20 to 25 percent of the time, witnesses pick a stand-in."

In one of his experiments, 253 participants watched a staged crime on video. All participants picked a suspect out of a six-person lineup, even though the true offender was not there. Wells explained that people tend to home in on the person who looks most like the perpetrator.

Wells' work primarily has focused on reforming the lineup method by which eyewitnesses make identifications. His research, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, has led to the development of new techniques that increasingly are being accepted in law enforcement practices across the United States.

One, called the sequential lineup, requires eyewitnesses to look at possible suspects one at a time. This encourages a comparison of each suspect to memory, rather than a comparison to other suspects.

Known as the nation's foremost expert on the psychology of eyewitness memory, Wells has served as an expert for the defense and prosecution in criminal and civil cases. He has authored more than 150 articles and chapters and two books. His work has received national media attention.

The lecture will begin at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 7, in the Memorial Union Sun Room. A reception will be held from 7 to 8 p.m. in the South Ball Room. The lecture and reception are free and open to the public.

The Presidential University Lecture Series was created to highlight faculty excellence in learning, discovery and engagement.

Gary Wells

ISU Distinguished Professor Gary Wells will share his research on witness identification during the Presidential University Lecture on Feb. 7. (Photo by David Gieseke.)